“I wish I could say it was my pleasure.”
“Me, too, but after what Stephen said—”
He pressed his finger to her lips. “Don’t think of it again.”
She winced. “I can’t promise that, but I’ll try.” Her face turned solemn. “I love you,” she said.
His heart stopped. She pronounced it as the sun rose, illuminating the room. Bold and brave, she blew him away. He didn’t know how to respond.
She bit her lip. “I thought I knew what love was before. With Stephen.”
His stomach twisted and he felt his hands draw into fists, but he held his tongue.
“But I didn’t,” she said. “I can’t remember wanting someone else’s happiness more in my life. Ever. I would do anything for you to feel happy and at peace. I love you.”
Overwhelmed by her profession, he pulled her against him. Humbled, but unable to offer her the same, he slid his fingers through her lush hair. “You’re so sweet,” he said. “So precious. I’ve never met another woman like you.” He held her close for several moments where his insides twisted and turned. “You had a rough day and night. You should get more rest,” he said. “Go back to bed.”
She looked up and met his gaze, and he knew he hadn’t given her what she wanted. He knew she wanted more from him. What she didn’t realize was that he didn’t have it to give.
Bella returned to Michael’s bed, but her slumber was filled with strange dreams. When she rose a couple hours later, she was more tired than rejuvenated. She also felt her profession of love sitting between her and Michael like an undigested Thanksgiving meal. Heavy and uncomfortable.Well, now she’d gone and done it. She’d blurted out her love to him and he didn’t know what to do with it. The awkwardness of that moment hung over her like a guillotine. Why had she done it? Because she couldn’t stop herself. A dam had broken open inside her.
With a mixture of humiliation and disappointment, she got herself together and drove to visit her aunt. Bad move. Charlotte’s boyfriend, Fred, answered the door.
Charlotte soon followed, wrapped in a long silk robe. “Bella, I didn’t know you were planning a visit. Come inside.” Her aunt dragged her toward the kitchen.
“That’s okay. I don’t want to interrupt,” Bella said.
“Nonsense, Fred was just going to take a shower.” She gave him a quick kiss. “Let me get you some orange juice and blueberry muffins. I want to hear about Grand Cayman,” she said, heading for the refrigerator. “Should I go?”
“Yes,” Bella said, stunned at the speed of her aunt’s developing relationship with Fred. “It’s beautiful.”
“Even for the not obscenely rich?” Charlotte asked, handing Bella a glass of orange juice and some muffins.
“Yes, even for the middle class. The water is warm and clear and the waves gentle. There’s a place that looks like lava where the water spouts. And they have great food. Low crime.” She took a sip of orange juice.
“Sounds like heaven. So, has Michael asked you to marry him?”
Bella choked. “No,” she managed.
“Why not?” Charlotte demanded.
“What about you and Fred?” she asked, changing the subject.
Charlotte waved her hand. “He has asked, but I’m procrastinating.”
“Why?” Bella asked. “Don’t you like him?”
“Yes, but marriage…I did that once and it didn’t turn out well at all.”
“Do you love him?” Bella asked.
Charlotte paused. “I think I might,” she admitted. “But if I get sick again?”
Bella covered her aunt’s hands with hers. “I hope you won’t live your life that way.”
Charlotte took a deep breath and shot Bella a sly smile. “And here I thought we were talking about your romance. How did we get off track?”
“We’re not,” Bella said, forcing a smile. “Michael’s not the marrying kind. I’m not sure he even believes in love.”
“Oh, sweetie, I’m so sorry,” Charlotte said. “And I pushed you into this.”
Bella shook her head. “No, you didn’t. I went into it on my own. He’s from a tough background. I can’t really blame him.”
Charlotte’s eyes filled with tears. “I wanted you to get over Stephen. I knew he wasn’t right for you. I had this feeling about Michael. I’m sorry.”
Bella shrugged. “Stop it. He’s an amazing man. I just don’t think he’s interested in forever after.”